Friday, February 3

Giorgia Meloni, beyond Italy


Giorgia Meloni’s victory in the Italian elections on Sunday removes the tectonic plates of European politics. “We will be watching”, said the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and she has reasons for it. A far-right government in Italy, the third economy in the euro zone, opens an internal front within the Union at a time when the European project is facing the war in Ukraine and the effects on the economy and daily life of the war launched by Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The Ukrainian crisis is the fourth consecutive crisis that has affected the European project in just over a decade (the Great Depression, Brexit, the pandemic, and now war) in a context marked by the Union’s own internal tensions: the effects of enlargement to the East, the disaffection of part of the European citizenry with the Union and the rise (return, if it ever left) of nationalism in many of European countries. It is in this context that Meloni’s victory poses a major challenge, not because it is exceptional (extreme right-wing, conservative and nationalist parties are growing in 16 of the 27 EU countries, and their influence is felt in the policies of the entire continent) but precisely because it is already very difficult to treat the extreme right as a reactive, punctual and controllable movement through policies such as the cordon sanitaire. Meloni symbolizes, in this sense, a bath of reality: Europe, a part of Europe, is of the extreme right, or at least communes with its social, economic and political prescriptions.

The Warsaw-Budapest-Rome axis

Italy is not just any country in the Union. It is not only about its economic weight (which is also), but about its political and symbolic importance. Italy, founding country of the Unionis not a country from the former Soviet orbit that joined the common European project through the vertiginous (and riddled with errors) enlargement to the east. Italy is the West, the heart of Europe and the engine of the EU. When it comes to Europeanism, even in its most naïve sense, Italy was considered one of ours. Since Sunday, at least it is legitimate to doubt.

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The arrival of the extreme right to power with a nativist and nationalist discourse and, although it has moderated its campaign, anti-European or at least very Eurosceptic, it constitutes a failure of European construction, incapable in this century of offering an exciting project to broad layers of European society. Meloni has declared herself an admirer of Viktor Orban’s Hungary, although she is about to see the Warsaw-Budapest-Rome axis that some predict become a reality (European funds, around 200,000 million euros, weigh heavily). In the same way, the pragmatic turn of the Brothers of Italy that has been talked about so much in the campaign ends up crystallizing, but the tone of political discourse in the EU changes with Meloni’s victory. The defenders of illiberal democracy are celebrating thanks to a country in which the weight of historical memory (Mussolini’s fascism) no longer weighs down the wings of its heirs.

From Marine Le Pen to Macarena Olona?

The European Left, Social Democracy and part of the Right with Christian Democrat roots They have been warning for years of the arrival of the extreme right. They allege that it must be combated (the cordons sanitaires) and that its normalization must be avoided by all means. But the extreme right is already normalized. So much so that in some countries (France, Italy) they even have more than one party that seeks to fish in that electorate. Meloni’s victory, in this sense, sends powerful messages to countries like France, Spain (where many believe that Santiago Abascal is getting the face of Matteo Salvini, one of the losers of the elections) and even Germany: the ultras can win in the Western countries of the Union, in the pillars of the European project. It remains to be seen if they can govern (like Donald Trump in the United States or Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil) and, above all, if the institutions of liberal democracy – both national and European – are capable of withstanding the challenge. Steve Bannon bets he doesn’t.

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After so many years of warning of the advent of the extreme right, in the end the wolf has arrived, she speaks Italian and is a woman. Meloni’s victory certifies, if need be, that the extreme right is no longer a rash, but part of the European electorate. An electorate that, unlike the generalized analysis, is not only reactive, does not vote for the ultras only as a protest against the state of things or against the traditional parties. The consequences of the 2008 crisis and the excesses of globalization are already palpable, not a theoretical exercise: nationalism, nativism, return to a mythical past, rejection of liberal principles, opposition to feminism and everything that sounds like LGTBI rights… From Trup’s MAGA to Meloni’s Made in Italy.

Part of Europe does not vote for the far right out of reaction, out of protest; a part of Europe votes for the extreme right because it shares its program, from the heavy hand with immigration to restrictions on abortion through a strong State that does not cede sovereignty to Brussels. The problem is that this program, beyond temporary pragmatic turns, is incompatible with the European project. Warsaw and, above all, Budapest, show it. But also London.

Berlusconi, the moderate: the democratic degradation

There are general European and global trends, but each country is its own universe. The victory of Mussolini’s heirs in Italy has not been gestated in a few days. Italy has long been an abracadabra laboratory for the trivialization of politics; of distance from the institutions and the representatives of their constituents; of corruption; of disintegration of the party system; of continual notice that Mussolini’s puppies were back. The discourse of fear has been heard in Italy for years, to the point that Italian society has developed antibodies (and, not coincidentally, historical levels of abstention). Italy today is a country where Silvio Berlusconi can be said to be a moderate in the center. Those same symbols, with tweaks, adapted to the idiosyncrasies of each country, can be seen in many other European countries. Banalizing politics (from show politics to the discourse of hyperbolic fear, including disrespect for the electorate) is the ideal fertilizer for populism.

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